WORKSHOP PROCEEDINGS- Shipping Risks: The Lessons from the Wakashio incidents for the islands of the Western Indian Ocean – 18 August 2023


    Madvee Jane Moteea-Sewlall, Editorial Assistant at the Charles Telfair Centre


    On Friday 18 August 2023, the Charles Telfair Centre, in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, organised a workshop on “Shipping Risks: The Lessons from the Wakashio incidents for the islands of the Western Indian Ocean,” at Hennessy Park Hotel, Ebene.  Twenty-seven people participated in this workshop, coming from academia, government, diplomacy, civil society and ocean advocacy backgrounds. Together they engaged in discussions on the causes of the Wakashio oil spill and the lessons to be learnt in order to build more resilient systems and strategies for islands of the Western Indian Ocean.

    The workshop was structured around three primary objectives:

    1. To evaluate the impact of shipping risks on Mauritius and the Western Indian Ocean, while exploring mitigation measures at local, national, and regional scales.
    2. To delve into the complex factors contributing to the Wakashio disaster, aiming to glean actionable insights from the sequence of events.
    3. To identify the challenges, barriers, and potential solutions that would enable more effective management of similar crises in the future.

    Setting the scene

    Professor Christian Bueger, Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, started the workshop by explaining the context of the Wakashio oil spill:

    “The Wakashio disaster should be understood as a string of failures. Several smaller problems and institutional mis-design interlock and produced the disaster. Such failures are with the shipping industry, the salvage company, but also of course with the government.”

    Mr Raj Mohabeer, Officer in Charge at the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), explained that:

    “It is impossible for any single country in the Western Indian Ocean region to exert full control and surveillance on its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the Indian Ocean Commission has designed maritime security structure through the MASE programme for providing investigative support and capacity building in East and Southern Africa.”

    Dr Vonintsoa Rafaly, Research Fellow at the University of Copenhagen, argued that international law provides tools to Mauritius as well as to high-risk states, that need to be used to their full extent. She mentioned that the law of the sea offers a lot of avenues when it comes to preventing and mitigating shipping risks, through the allocation of rights and duties to states, depending on their status. She further added that:

    “In order to protect the coastal state sovereignty in internal and territorial waters, coastal states can adopt regulations to prevent and mitigate shipping risks, they have the duty to safeguard these areas under their jurisdiction through monitoring and risk assessment, and they have the power to enforce regulations, taking into consideration the right for innocent passage and freedom of navigation of foreign vessels. […] In that context, several other international legal instruments complement UNCLOS regarding international standards and practices. At the international level, it includes conventions to prevent pollution from shipping (MARPOL), or to enhance the safety and security standards (SOLAS, SUA, ISPS, OPRC). They offer measures such as traffic separation schemes or protected areas to prevent shipping risks in sensitive areas.”

    The Indian Ocean is a busy shipping route. There are various types of Blue Crimes in the Indian Ocean, which includes Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated Fishing (IUU), piracy, drug trafficking, etc. The types of crimes and risks in the ocean will increase due to climate change and the heightened amount of shipping activities in the Indian Ocean.

    The consequences of the Wakashio oil spill

    The Wakashio oil spill has resulted in multiple direct consequences for coastal communities living nearby. The psychological impact includes community panic, numbness, fear, stress and uncertainty which were felt by people from the first day of the incident.

    Communities found themselves without immediate support or guidance regarding issues such as threats to their economic livelihoods (fishing), health and safety about water and food consumption or the nature of the emergency response. This gap in response can be attributed to several factors, including ineffective and delayed coordination among various stakeholders, as well as slow bureaucratic decision-making processes within the government itself.

    Complicating the situation further, the unprecedented nature of such a disaster for the island left authorities unprepared for the scope and complexity of the crisis. In the absence of timely governmental intervention, NGOs emerged as the first responders, witnessing firsthand the psychological toll inflicted on the communities. These organisations stepped in to address urgent queries and concerns, ranging from threats to economic livelihoods to evaluating and responding to the environmental and health impact of the disaster.


    The workshop discussions yielded the following series of recommendations:

    A networked and coordinated approach to disaster management with a people-centred strategy. An improved disaster contingency plan must feature an enhanced system of communication with regards to community mobilisation with the appointment of government officials on the ground to assist the community with regards to all their queries. All ministries are concerned by disasters, ranging from health, environment, food security, finance and they should work together to help communities overcome the impact of disasters. A post-disaster follow up is also important because communities have been deeply fragilised by the disaster, including post-traumatic stress disorder, loss of livelihoods, food scarcity and issues of compensation.

    Better systems of communication amongst all stakeholders and especially the public. Lines of communication amongst ministries must be strengthened so that the multi-faceted consequences of a disaster are tackled. Stakeholders such as civil society, environmental activists, government officials, media representatives, experts, the general public, and private companies have all contributed to disaster response efforts. To enhance future collaborations, these groups should move beyond working in silos and adopt more transparent approaches to communicating and working together.

    Provide more financial resources to NGOs. The oil spill has shown that NGOs, as first responders, dealt with many aspects of the disaster, from making booms to contain the oil spill, conducting surveys of the spread of the oil, forming part of ministerial committees and reassuring the coastal communities. The Government should provide more financial and coordination support so that NGOs can have more capability and resources to conduct their activities. Their roles are central during and after disaster response and they must feature as central components of a disaster response plan.

    Impact and risk analysis of coastal communities. The Wakashio oil spill has revealed the vulnerability of coastal communities, and this requires urgent action in terms of further surveys, case studies and research on how communities are to be equipped to face future disasters and how they can be made more resilient. A thorough risk analysis will enable stakeholders to gauge what type of risks exist for different communities and how these can be mitigated. For example, the oil spill was not the only cause of worry for communities, the COVID-19 pandemic had also exacerbated their state of living. By understanding how risk factors interact and accumulate, authorities can develop solutions that not only support communities but also strengthen them for future challenges.

    Setting up of a Commission of Enquiry to gather knowledge and lessons learnt from the Wakashio oil spill. A state-commissioned Commission of Enquiry was a major recommendation of this workshop; all participants were unanimous that each stakeholder involved had gathered much experience from their involvement in the oil spill, and this must be documented, for the preparation of a future contingency plan. An enquiry will also enable the authorities to shed light, not only about the reasons of the oil spill, but also the interplay of various risks, factors and weaknesses such as major delay, confusion, or slow decision making, which worsened the impact of the oil spill.

    Mapping of maritime traffic in the Indian Ocean. In order to understand the extent and future trends of maritime traffic in the Indian Ocean, it is essential that countries, through a local and regional approach, can map and calculate the number of ships which pass through their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). This will allow countries to gauge the risks in the region and to monitor illegal activities at sea. Risk analysis in each region differs, as well as the type of incidents such as container loss, shipping emissions, collisions, oil spills etc.  Understanding risks properly helps to tackle risks and derive tailor-made solutions.

    Incorporate prevention and disaster preparedness in national policy. Through enhanced surveillance and real-time monitoring of maritime traffic, as well as improved information sharing, preventive and deterrence measures effectively reduce the occurrence of violations and unintended accidents while improving presence at sea. The reduction of shipping risks for Mauritius includes, inter alia, a well-coordinated and disseminated contingency plan, stronger law enforcement operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), integrated risk mitigation, close surveillance of shipping, disaster response strategies and the availability of response equipment.

    Understanding international law for disaster risk management. Disaster preparedness deals with the mitigation of shipping risks, and the establishment of a sound legal framework, both preventive and repressive, and both normative and institutional. Mauritius would benefit from a tailor-made interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to better prevent and mitigate shipping risks. At the national level, it is primordial to implement and strengthen international rules and standards, providing regulations and infrastructures to intercept and prosecute the wrong doers. Improvements are required in terms of institutional capacity, better leverage of the existing international laws as well as more integrated processes across the multiple stakeholders: the government, private sector, and civil society.

    The urgency to garner regional and international cooperation for maritime safety and security. Not a single state can control alone what is going on in the ocean, and maritime risks and crimes have taken an international dimension, causing all states, especially islands, to be highly vulnerable to crimes. Proper equipment, resources, expertise and capabilities must be pooled amongst countries, through regional bodies and other international organisations and institutions, to set up such systems and infrastructure. To establish a robust foundation for maritime safety and security in the Western Indian Ocean, it is crucial for islands in the region to engage in agreements and regional treaties. These should focus on collaborative partnerships, joint monitoring and surveillance, law enforcement coordination, and capability training in disaster risk management at sea.

    Main photo by ©Charles Telfair Centre.

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).

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